Effective networking is good business! In fact, association networking has played a major role in building our consulting firm from a solo practice to an international business with 600 clients in 40 states and five countries.
Like most networking junkies, we have found that the real value of joining associations lies in becoming active. Your investment in associations will pay off if members know you, see you often, and get the message that you intend to be around for a long time.
Before I get into the details of making your investments in associations pay off, I will review 10 basics of association networking.
- Join the chamber of commerce. Some of your prospects will only purchase your products or services if you are in the chamber directory. Although the chamber personnel does not typically make referrals, they do provide a list of suggested sources when asked to make recommendations.
- Be visible. Go to business card exchanges, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. These events are a valuable source of leads and contacts. In these difficult economic times, people will think that you are out of business if they do not see you with their own eyes. If you are uncomfortable going to the function alone, take a friend or business associate along.
- Develop a solid answer to the question, “What do you do?”. You will only have time for a maximum of about seven words, so make your explanation clear and easy to remember.
- Always have business cards with you. Also, make sure your card clearly communicates what type of business you are in so that prospective buyers easily understand what products or services they can buy from you. Your right pocket is for your cards. Your left pocket is for the cards you collect.
- Do not put all of your networking eggs into one basket. It is like having too few customers. What if the membership shrinks or the competition is too tough? Make sure that there is a need for your products or services within that specific group.
- Participate in associations that are closely connected with your industry. For instance, if you are working for a public relations firm, become active in the Public Relations Society of America or Women in Communications. These associations can be important sources of business leads. To increase your sources of business leads even further, also join associations in which your customers are active.
- Networking requires give-and-take. Remember to follow up after you meet people at association functions. Send a brief, friendly “glad to have met you” note and some information about your business. You can also make phone calls to new contacts about 10 days after the association function. Try to offer useful information to your new contacts. You get more business if you are remembered as a source of assistance rather than as a source of high pressure.
- It is important for people to clearly understand what you do and what you expect of them. Check with potential referral sources to make sure that they know what products and services you offer and to learn more about their business so you can also refer business to them. When you network with consultants, think of specific ways you can complement each other’s business.
- Do not eat or drink too much. Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum at association dinners. Order food that is easy to eat so that you can easily maintain eye contact and make comfortable conversation.
- Listen more than you talk. Pay attention to cues about what people need from you by noting specifics about their business. People usually buy from someone who is tuned into them and their business needs.
Make The Most of Your Involvement
The following information will help you become actively involved in associations so that you can enjoy your participation and get new business contacts.
Positioning and committee selection: When selecting a committee to join, remember the “positioning” statement that you are trying to convey and reinforce it through your association activity. If you want to be recognized as a leader, look for a committee with a large multi-part project so that you can effectively take charge of a piece while still participating as a team player. You can also create new projects or revitalize committees that are in trouble.
The value of sponsorship: Among several other excellent points raised in their newest book, Horse Sense, authors Ries and Trout draw the distinction between mentors and sponsors. Mentors are teachers and role models who you can learn from and emulate. Sponsors are people and groups who can give you endorsements; their stamp of approval adds clout to your marketing efforts. Associations are excellent sources for acquiring both.
Think about it — is there not an association-related project in which you can participate that could attract meaningful sponsorship?
Track return on investment: Keep track of the time and money you spend on association-related work as well as the business you gain. This is all part of your overall marketing program. Hold your networking activity accountable.
Do not quit an association because it has not brought you any leads lately. Examine what you can do to become more active and visible in the association.
Fold cards to retain contacts: Develop a system of coding folded corners for business cards as you collect them. This helps you retain eye contact with your networking prospect instead of hunting for a pen to write on the back of the card. Keep your “folding codes” constant so they never lose their meaning. I fold the upper left hand corner of a person’s business card when he/she has requested an appointment. I fold the upper right hand corner when the person wants an appointment right away. A fold on the lower left hand corner means that the person has requested specific information from me. I fold a business card in half when I need to do a little research about the person I have met.
Do not do it alone: Spend more time making other people look good then focusing on yourself. It is harder to get ahead all on your own. You need other people. If you advance in the association, take other people with you. They will enjoy the ride, remember you for it, and you will create cooperative team effort for each project that you pursue.
An association has several targets: An association’s membership consists of prospective customers, referral sources, mentor, subcontractors, competitors, technical resources, etc. Use your knowledge of the shared needs and interests of the members as a whole when you target your marketing messages in your pitch letters, direct mail or telemarketing campaigns aimed at association members.
The value of second chances: Associations are excellent training grounds for aspiring leaders. You have endless opportunities to build consensus, diffuse conflicts, clarify priorities, plan action steps and negotiate compromises. You also have numerous opportunities to make mistakes. If you goof up, face it; apologize if it is appropriate to do so and stay active with the association. Members of associations, especially business groups, recognize when you mean well and often turn out to be more forgiving than you may think they will be.
Have fun: When association projects get too serious, people can get short-tempered and critical. This tense environment can be counterproductive to your business networking efforts in the association. If you are on a committee that gets “heavy,” see if you can help people lighten up and celebrate little successes along the way.
Known as The Growth Strategist™, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps rapidly growing midsized companies (typically $20 – 200 million/year) realize their goal of Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability® through opportunity/resource analysis, executive coaching, strategic working sessions, and her intermediary role regarding growth financing. Her clients are among the brightest, most ambitious business leaders whose names now appear on published lists of the fastest growing privately held corporations. The recipient of 23 prestigious awards for her success as an entrepreneur and industry leader, Ambler hosts a peer-to-peer-to-peer Internet radio program, aptly called The Growth Strategist™, which features lively interviews with CEOs of midmarket companies who have successfully executed the growth strategy of the week. She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna (253-6662), by e-mail at Aldonna@AMBLER.com or online at www.ambler.com.